Power, Ego, and Brain Damage

"Inflated Ego" by Paul Brook

Recently I was reflecting on how fortunate I have been to interact with a set of leaders who made me inspired to really try hard to bring my ‘A’ game as a new leader at Facebook. Watching them operate I was reminded how much I love working with low-ego leaders who operate from a place of humility, curiosity, and empathy. Across several conversations with people, the topic of Imposter Syndrome repeatedly came up.

The role of Imposter Syndrome in the success of many leaders is something that has long interested me. It’s something that is a very personal topic since I have struggled with it for much of my life, especially since first becoming a manager. I have worked with many high-ego leaders over the years. High-ego leaders can create a level of showmanship that is really impressive, and can build almost cult-like followings in their organization. There are a few that I deeply respect, but I have never really been able to connect with them. I cannot shake the suspicion that their motivation puts their needs first and mine last, and also I just cannot visualize myself in their shoes, wanting to do many of the things they do.

There was a fantastic article in The Atlantic in 2017 titled “Power Causes Brain Damage” in which the author talked about a number of different studies which correlated the effects of having power to long term behavior, some of which was similar to what occurs in people who have suffered traumatic brain injury – including poor impulse control, higher risk tolerance, and lack of empathy. Some of this research was incredibly thought provoking about the effect of putting people in positions of power over others, and that even a little power can reduce “mirroring” ability – being able to visualize things from another’s perspective. I remember reading this when it was published and flashing through my mind the people with whom I’ve worked over the years who wielded power and lacked empathy. This included several people I observed throughout their careers who started as down-to-earth influencers, able to rally people around them by deeply connecting with others, and ended as impersonal and detached tyrants who wouldn’t listen to the counsel of even their most trusted allies (no, I won’t name names.) While there is reasonable debate about the conclusions, they ring true based on my experiences (though that could also be belief bias in action too.)

Another interesting discussion in the article was about the exceptions to this rule. Why is it that some very powerful people seem to remain very empathetic and able to lead by connecting with people? One theory presented was that they had someone in their lives very close to them who kept them grounded and prevented them from becoming very high-ego (or reined them in when they went too far.) Louis Howe was a long time friend and advisor of Franklin D. Roosevelt who broke with protocol and refused to address him as “Mr. President” after his election, instead continuing to address him as “Franklin” in order to remind him not to get too far ahead of himself. Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine famously penned a letter calling him out for failing to show empathy and care for people as he ascended to power.

Those of us who have a person in their lives who can lovingly keep them grounded are truly fortunate, but is that the only way to prevent from turning into an egomaniac as you gain power or authority? Some research indicates that as many as 70% of high achievers have Imposter Syndrome. The cause / effect relationship is really interesting to me. Do people gain Imposter Syndrome as they get pushed closer and closer to their peter point? Do they lose confidence in their abilities as the weight of increased expectations and responsibility for their team weighs on them? Or is Imposter Syndrome a factor in why they became successful in the first place? Does the continual self-analysis ( and unfortunately self-doubt) cause them to try harder, do better, and never rest on their laurels? Many of the most empathetic leaders I’ve worked with – people who just seem to be able to innately connect with people and inspire them – have admitted to struggling with Imposter Syndrome. Does it act in some capacity as the “internal Clementine” who reminds them that they should not let their ego get inflated, and prevent any power (real or perceived) from going to their heads?

I think that’s a credible hypothesis, and from my sample size of 1, I think it has had a pretty profound impact on what I have done in my career. Each time I have taken on some new challenge I have struggled with feeling like I was in over my head and that at any moment people would recognize that I had risen past my level of competence. As a result I worked hard to make sure I understood my domain, and after any significant event (and all too many minor events) I would relentlessly post mortem and obsess about what to do better. I think it also kept some of my worse instincts stifled. I couldn’t treat people like I knew everything because I constantly questioned what I knew. I’m not suggesting Imposter Syndrome is a good thing and you should go out and get some. At its worst it can be debilitating. I have a dear friend who is brilliant and amazing but her Imposter Syndrome has kept her from going after larger leadership roles, and the world is worse off for it. But I think there is a great value in some of the behaviors if applied in moderation. Continuous self-evaluation and identifying ways to improve, constantly striving to learn, and humility can absolutely lead to greater impact and personal growth. And, who knows, it might even prevent brain damage.

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